Friday, 18 March 2016

Sumerian beer

This Sumerian beer is made using a combination of fruit, malted grain, and bread.  It's very, very different from the kinds of beer we're familiar with today, but I found it surprisingly enjoyable.

Sumerian style beer, made according to the instructions in the Hymn to Ninkasi.

In my last post I discussed the Hymn to Ninkasi and what it tells us about Sumerian brewing practices.  I used the Hymn to develop a recipe for Sumerian style beer, and this is the result.

I won't lie to you: I didn't really expect this stuff to be very nice.  It has no carbonation at all, and no hops.  It also didn't get a secondary fermentation, which is usually an important part of the brewing process.  But this beer surprised me.  It isn't bad at all; in fact I like it.  It has a fresh, clean flavour and is pleasantly refreshing on a hot day after work.  The taste of barley comes through strongly and there are also distinct fruit flavours, but it's not very sweet and I think the different flavours are fairly well balanced.  The alcohol content is 4.5% by volume, so it's comparable to regular commercially produced beer in that respect.

I suggest serving this beer around 12 degrees C - cellar temperature, not chilled like a lager.

Even after filtering the beer through cheesecloth there is still a layer of sediment on the bottom of the bottle, which is visible in the picture.  Using a straw enables you to avoid the sediment layer and that, I suspect, is why the Sumerians drank their beer through straws.

Although I've tried to follow the Sumerian brewing process as far as possible, I have made some modern compromises.  I've used modern equipment because that's what I have in my kitchen, and a modern approach to sterilization because life's too short for bad homebrew.  You can get food poisoning from drinking bad brews.  I also added some dried bread yeast.  The Sumerians may have used the yeast that grows naturally on grape skins to ferment their beer, but I decided to use dried yeast rather than rely on the grapes, because who knows what's on the skins of supermarket grapes?

The Challenge: Juicy Fruits.  A combination of dates and grapes helps to give this beer a distinctive flavour.

The Recipe: Technically, this beer requires two recipes.

For the bappir (beer bread)

500 grams two row barley malt
A splash of date honey
Spices - I used a quarter teaspoon each of aniseed and cumin, both of which were used by the Sumerians.
Enough water to turn the ingredients into a stiff dough

Because of the barley husks the dough will not stick together very well, but that's okay.  Just do the best you can.  Shape the dough into a flat, round loaf on a pizza stone or baking tray; I recommend using baking paper.  The dough is baked twice, like biscotti.  I baked it for 30 minutes at 180 degrees C, then sliced it into strips and put it back in the oven (which I had turned off) to dry out.  It smelled great, but due to the presence of barley husks I wouldn't eat it unless I had to.

This is what the bappir looked like when it came out of the oven:

It did crumble a bit, but that's fine.  It has to be broken up for mashing anyway.

For 3 liters of Sumerian beer

Bappir from previous recipe
600 grams two row barley malt
Half a liter of date honey
A good handful of grapes
A teaspoon of bread yeast

I crumbled the bappir into a bowl, added the grain, and mashed them at 55 degrees C for 60 minutes.  Then I strained the mash and added date honey and grapes.  I pitched the yeast at 25 degrees C and let it ferment until the lack of bubbling noises indicated primary fermentation was over, then I bottled it.

I strongly recommend filtering the beer through a piece of cloth before bottling.

Note that my recipe only makes a small quantity.  You can of course scale it up to meet your requirements, but this stuff won't keep and should be consumed within a few days of brewing.

The Date/Year and Region: Southern Mesopotamia, c1800 BCE.

How Did You Make It: I developed the recipe based on the Hymn to Ninkasi.

Time to Complete:  About four hours' preparation time, plus three days to ferment.  Bear in mind though that most of that preparation time is just waiting for things to bake, or mash, or cool down enough to pitch the yeast.  The amount of actual, hands on work involved is fairly minimal.

Fermentation could take more or less time depending on the yeast and the environmental temperature, as with any beer.  It's ready to drink when you can't hear any more bubbling in the fermentation vessel.

Total Cost: $10.80.  This was a comparatively expensive beer recipe, because I had to buy dates.  Note however that although dates are expensive in New Zealand, they would have been cheap and readily available in ancient Mesopotamia.

How Successful Was It?  Much more successful than I thought it would be.  Because it's so different to the beers we're familiar with now it may be an acquired taste for modern beer drinkers, but I say put your expectations aside and give it a chance.

Leaving the barley husks in the bappir was a good idea, even though it made the dough difficult to mix and shape.  As I mentioned in the last post other people who have tried Sumerian beer have found that their mash stuck, but I didn't have that problem.  I think that was probably because of the barley husks.

How Accurate Is It? It's as accurate as I could get it based on my current understanding of Sumerian brewing.  To some extent I've had to make interpretations and use my best judgement, and the ingredients may not be exactly like the ones the Sumerians used.  Barley, for  instance, has probably changed a bit in the last 4000 years.  And, of course, I've used modern equipment.  But on the whole I think it's a fairly reasonable recreation of Sumerian beer.

I think this is a reasonable interpretation of the Hymn to Ninkasi, and one that fits the evidence we have about Sumerian brewing,  but other interpretations are possible and they are equally valid. 

Monday, 14 March 2016

Let's take a look at the Hymn to Ninkasi

The Hymn to Ninkasi, picture from Tulane University.  It was written around 1800 BCE by an unknown scribe.

Ninkasi was the Sumerian goddess of beer.  The Hymn to Ninkasi is not exactly a beer recipe in the modern sense, but in lines 13 to 48 it contains a fairly detailed description of the process by which Sumerians made beer four thousand years ago:
It is you who handle the ...... and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics. Ninkasi, it is you who handle the ...... and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics.
It is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain. Ninkasi, it is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain.
It is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?). Ninkasi, it is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?).
It is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall. Ninkasi, it is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall.
It is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes ....... Ninkasi, it is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes .......
It is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine. Ninkasi, it is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine.
1 line damaged
You ...... the sweetwort to the vessel. Ninkasi, ....... You ...... the sweetwort to the vessel.
You place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat. Ninkasi, you place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat.
It is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ninkasi, it is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.

- Translation by Miguel Civil available at the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford University.

Let's recap this process:

  1. Ninkasi bakes beer bread flavoured with aromatic herbs and/or spices.  This is a special type of bread called bappir which was used to make beer.  In 1800 BCE cuneiform it is denoted by a combination of the sign for beer and the sign for bread. 
  2. Ninkasi malts grain, and prepares an infusion mash.  
  3. She mixes wort with honey and wine, then ferments the resulting mixture.
  4. Finally, Ninkasi filters the fermented beer and then it's ready to drink.  This beer does not get a secondary fermentation like the beers we're familiar with today, and it doesn't get carbonated.

Unfortunately, the poem doesn't give any guidance as to how much of each ingredient should be used, so I will just have to guess the ingredient quantities.

Dates were probably one of the flavouring agents used to make bappir, and I would expect that some herbs and spices were included as well.  Ancient Mesopotamian people liked spiced food and the Sumerian recipes that survive tend to use multiple flavouring agents*.

I'm a little confused as to whether the grain used to make the bappir is supposed to be malted.  It's possible to make bread from malted grains and the malting process is necessary in order to release fermentable sugars from the grain.  The Hymn seems to imply the bappir has already been made by the time Ninkasi gets started on the malt, but there are scholars who think bappir was made from malted grains.  Perhaps it was made with an earlier batch of malt?  This is possible.  Bappir could be stored for relatively long periods and seems to have been a way of preserving grain for future use.

Another question is why the stuff Miguel Civil translates as "sweetwort" appears to be something Ninkasi can hold in her hands, when wort is a liquid.  Is this just a poetic metaphor?  Is she squeezing the grain/bappir residue to extract as much wort as possible?  It's hard to tell exactly what's going on here.

According to Miguel Civil, the honey mentioned in the hymn is likely to be date honey, while the wine could be either wine, grapes, or raisins.  If it is meant to be grapes or raisins, this may be how the Sumerians introduced yeast to their wort; yeast grows naturally on the skin of grapes.

Exactly how long should the beer be allowed to ferment?  Well, I think the hymn gives us an answer when it says the fermenting vat makes a pleasant sound.  Beers and wines make an audible bubbling noise during primary fermentation.  When you can no longer hear bubbling, the primary fermentation is complete.  I suggest the hymn is telling us, in its poetic way, that the beer was ready to drink after primary fermentation had finished.

The key problem with interpreting the Hymn to Ninkasi is that in order to understand it we have to filter it through modern knowledge about how the brewing process works.  The Sumerians did not have a modern understanding of the science behind brewing so there's no guarantee that what makes sense to a modern researcher bears any resemblance to what the Sumerians actually did.  In some ways the Hymn to Ninkasi raises more questions than it answers, but there's enough there to have a crack at brewing some Sumerian beer and a number of researchers have done so.  There are modernized recipes based on the Hymn available here courtesy of Brew Your Own, and here courtesy of the Maltose Falcons.

Note that these modern recipes include rice hulls.  Brewers add rice hulls to their mash to prevent it getting sticky and clumpy, but rice did not grow in ancient Sumeria.  We don't know what, if anything, the Sumerians used instead.  A potential answer lies in the fact that bappir was not eaten on its own, except during famines.  This possibly (though not necessarily) indicates the bappir was unpalatable.  If that's the case, I suspect bappir contained barley husks as well as the grain itself.

Some researchers question whether Sumerian beer contained alcohol.  Personally I'm inclined to think the question is more how much alcohol it contained; remember the hymn specifically says the fermenting vat makes a pleasant sound.  In other words, something is definitely fermenting in there.  But exactly how much alcohol the beer contained is open to question and different types of beer may have differed in strength.  I have a hydrometer now, so I can put this to the test when I make my Sumerian beer.  At a guess I'd say it will be comparable to modern commercial beers - about 5% alcohol by volume, however the inclusion of date honey means it would theoretically be possible to make a brew with a higher alcohol percentage.

In the next post I'll share the practical results of all this theory!

* D.T. Potts. 1997.  Mesopotamian Civilisation: The Material Foundations.  London: The Athlone Press.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

The Phaistos helmet reconstruction - complete

There you have it folks, my reconstruction of a 16th century BCE Minoan helmet.

Here it is with the original Phaistos helmet for comparison

My objective was to make a helmet that is as close as possible to what the Minoans actually used, based on what we know about helmets in the bronze age.  How historically accurate is my reconstruction?  Overall this was quite a successful project and the final product does successfully recreate the Phaistos helmet.  Where I've had to make assumptions, I'm fairly confident that they are plausible and reasonable.    As far as possible I've used materials and technique that were available to the Minoans, with the exception of three little cheats: metal components made out of modern ferrous alloy, modern dyes for the felt, and modern steel tools.  In this blog post I'll talk about some of the decisions I made and why I made them.

Because these helmets were made from perishable materials there are no surviving examples.  There are depictions of beehive helmets in Minoan and Mycenaean art, but these are small, often fairly stylized, and can be interpreted in a number of different ways.

Some of the most detailed depictions of beehive helmets in ancient art show boars' tusk helmets of the kind Homer described.  These sculptures show helmets that were constructed around a framework of leather strips, and I've constructed mine the same way.  The difference is that instead of boars' tusks my helmet has an outer shell of leather plates.

From the front

From the side

From the inside.  The felt lining is what Homer called a πίλός (pilos).

Because of the lack of direct archaeological evidence I've had to make some assumptions, and to some extent this project has been about testing those assumptions.  Using felt to cover the joins in the outer layer of the helmet was an assumption based on the fact that it's well suited to the task, and we know that felt was used to line helmets.   While it would have been possible to use leather I think the felt did a better job and was easier to work with, so that assumption worked fairly well.  The felt lining inside the helmet makes it more comfortable to wear, but on the outside it's mainly decorative.  It's there to cover the join lines between the leather plates.

My decision to make the outer shell of the helmet in four parts was also an assumption.   I don't know if the Minoans would have had a way to make the outside of a helmet in one piece, but that wasn't possible with the leather I used.

The fact that Aegean beehive helmets were usually made from perishable materials is fairly conclusively established*, but exactly what materials were used and how they were used is less clear.  Based on archaeological finds of metal reinforcement discs we know that this style of helmet was made from either leather or some type of textile with metal discs attached to it to enhance its protective qualities.   Leather is a reasonable guess, but it's also possible these helmets could have been made from linen.  Probably many layers of linen glued together much like a linothorax.   Some bronze age images show helmets with horizontal ridges that I think may perhaps represent thick rolls of glued linen.  In the future I'd like to try making a linen helmet to see how it works out.

From the top you can see the concentric leather rings that make up the outside of the helmet.

What kind of protection would this helmet offer?  

I have to admit that after spending between 20 and 30 hours making this thing I don’t particularly want to take it down the firing range and shoot at it.  However, it would be easy enough to make a test patch and I can already make some observations about the helmet’s protective qualities.

At its thinnest point, the helmet is 20mm thick.  This includes two layers of 5mm armour leather plus two layers of wool felt.  At its crown the helmet is a good two inches thick, with many layers of leather strips.  It weighs 1.4 kilograms, which is equivalent to a lightweight motorcycle helmet.

I’m inclined to think the primary purpose of a helmet like this was to prevent blunt force trauma.  It’s made from thick layers of flexible materials that can absorb the kinetic energy of an impact, and it offers as much protection as possible to the crown of the head.  The thick leather reinforced with metal studs would be relatively difficult to penetrate with a sword or arrow, but the construction as a whole seems designed to absorb the kinetic energy of an impact rather than to provide the kind of solid barrier that plate armour does. In this respect it's a lot like a linothorax.

Would I be happy to let someone hit me over the head while wearing this helmet?  Yes.  Yes I would.

*  Helmets made entirely out of metal did exist in the bronze age, but were unusual.  Even the famous Dendra Panoply did not come with a metal helmet.  Its owner apparently preferred a boars' tusk helmet.